A good choice for someone on a budget who is looking for stylish, compact SUV that is roomy and well equipped.
Comparable models in this class:
Ford Escape, Honda Element, Hyundai Tucson. Jeep Liberty, Kia Sportage, Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner
Well, the little Suzuki Grand Vitara has grown up. And with the growing, the compact SUV finds itself in a whole new group of friends (and competitors).
I have always been a fan of the Grand Vitara, as well as its Suzuki predecessors, the Samurai, Sidekick, and Vitara, and the Suzuki-derived Geo (Chevrolet) Tracker. To me, these vehicles were always the standard for compact (or mini) sport utilities. If you wanted the smallest vehicle capable of going off-road or dealing with snow and mud, then you looked toward Suzuki.
But Suzuki has grown the Grand Vitara, making it about the same size as a Ford Escape. Not that this is bad, mind you, but it makes life more challenging for Suzuki. The new 2006 Grand Vitara has a 103.9-inch wheelbase, six inches longer than the 2005 version, and is 11 inches longer at 176.0 inches. Cargo volume is a healthy 68.9 cubic feet, so while the GV is larger, what it gains doesn't hurt its utility.
Under the hood is a 2.7-liter V6 that pumps out 185 horsepower. While the GV weighs about 3,600 pounds, there is enough power for most applications. On the highway it was certainly adequate. I did find the engine to be buzzy, though. It felt more like a four than a V6.
The transmission is a 5-speed automatic. There's no manual mode offered, but it isn't really necessary, although it would be an advantage in some situations. We didn't notice any unpleasant "transmission" lag when we kicked the accelerator and down-shifted.
We had the version equipped with Suzuki's 4-mode all-wheel drive that uses a locking center differential. A low range is also included, which makes the GV capable of some serious off-roading, if you choose.
Front seats offered good comfort, but not a lot of side support. SUVs don't need a lot of side support, though; comfort is the main priority.
Rear seats offer "theatre" seating, where these seats are slightly higher than the front seats. This is a nice touch in a smaller vehicle, where you spend a lot of time looking at the back of the diver's head. The rear seats offer good leg room, even if headroom is compromised slightly by the theatre seating.
The rear seats fold forward and tip up to get maximum cargo volume. However, to get the maximum length, you have to keep the folded rear seat flat. When the seat and back are folded up against the back of the front seat, some cargo length is lost. For maximum rearward visibility, the rear headrests are smaller, and should be lifted for maximum safety.
Access to the rear is unique. Suzuki uses a rear door, rather than a hatch. The hinge is on the right side, which makes it more convenient for Japanese traffic, where you're not opening the door on the same side as the traffic flow, but it isn't a real problem in the US.
The instrument panel is dominated by a large speedometer, with the tachometer on the left and a combined fuel and water temperature gauge on the right. In the center is a digital clock with outside temperature and instant fuel economy, which is useless. I pushed all the buttons and couldn't find overall fuel economy, which I judged to be about 22 mpg. The HVAC and audio systems were excellent. Our tester was wired for satellite radio, but it wasn't activated in our tester. Cruise and audio controls were on the steering wheel.
One neat feature on the Luxury model of the Grand Vitara was the ignition key, or lack of it. The system is called "Smart Access". You push a button on the fob to unlock the doors, but there's no key attached to the fob (okay, there is one inside the fob, but it's only for emergencies). Once you're settled in your seat, you simply turn the ignition switch to start the car, the same as you would if you had a key inserted. This was confusing to some journalists, but I found it worked quite well. Actually, I like this system better than "Start" buttons, because the actions of the driver are more conventional.
The top-of-the-line Luxury model had almost everything included in the base price of $24,399, including full power accessories, a full spare tire cover, the audio system, and heated front seats. Our tester had 17-inch alloy wheels that had a value-added discount. Destination and delivery are included in the price as well, making the Grand Vitara a good bargain, as always.